The basic meaning of the Sunday for the worship of the community is summed up by Vatican II in the words: “on this day Christ’s faithful are bound to come together into one place. They should listen to the Word of God and take part in the Eucharist, thus calling to mind the passion, resurrection and glory of the Lord Jesus, and give thanks to God who has begotten them again, through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, unto a living hope. The lord’s day is the original feast day” (SC 106).
Believers in Christ have from the first come together on Sundays to anticipate the second coming of the Lord, to encounter the risen Christ in the Eucharist, and to gratefully recall to mind the death and Resurrection of Jesus. One reads in Acts: “On the first day of the week, when we had met for the breaking of bread…” (20:7). St. Paul speaks of collections of money to be made on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:2), and in Rev 1:10 mention is made of the Lord’s Day.
Whereas the last day of the week was sacred to the Jews as the day on which creation was completed, the first day is sacred to the Christians as the day of the new creation begun in the Resurrection of the Lord. The third commandment obliges us to keep one day of the week as the Lord’s Day and forbids unnecessary servile works on that day. In performing his ordinary duties, man finds it hard to give much time to God and hence he needs a special day of worship. Experience shows also that man needs one day of rest in seven.
Chapter I: Sunday Worship
A. Meaning and term
The Sunday is in a special way a day of common worship, where Christians come together to commemorate the passion and resurrection of their Lord. It is the day dedicated to the risen Lord. Yet all the other mysteries of Christian faith and the entire work of redemption are also recalled on this day. The Sunday is in a most special and universal way the memorial of the Lord. Hence it gives believers the unique opportunity to express their common faith in Christ and to comply with the Lord’s command: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk: 22:19; I Cor.11: 24ff).
The common celebration of the holy Mass contributes much to strengthen the believers in their faith and to renew their commitment to Christ. As the memorial of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the Mass is the outstanding means of professing the common faith in Christ and nourishing and deepening it (SC 33). It inspires the faithful to become of one heart in love, to grow in charity, and to practice in deed what they profess by creed.
Christians also sanctify the Sunday in order to render common praise, thanks and honour to God. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer and work are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value.
Against a certain individualistic approach to the Sunday observance in the past, it must expressly be emphasized that the Sunday is a matter of the community. The purpose of the Sunday celebration is in a very special way the formation of a community of faith and love. Not the individual but the community as social body is to give praise and thanks to God on this day. In addition the Sunday service brings people together who otherwise would hardly meet each other.
The Christian community sanctifies time and daily life above all by the weekly celebration of Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
1. Christian Sunday as the Celebration of the Paschal Mystery
The Sabbath is a commemoration of the deliverance out of Egypt (Deut 5:15) and is thus also a sign of Passover and covenant (Ex 31:12-17).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church No: 2177 exhorts: “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life. Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church”. The Sunday is the weekly Easter, the “celebration of the paschal mystery which is therefore rightly called the day of the Lord or the Lord’s Day”. The Vatican II, in its decree on the Sacred Liturgy, art. 106, teaches that the new people of God participates in the victory of Easter. They experience a true liberation from sin, death, and the devil. They are led towards the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:21) and so incorporated into the new covenant. Hence the close connection between Sunday and Baptism, and even closer one between Sunday and the Eucharist. St. Augustine uses the word sacramentum for Sunday.
The Christian Sunday is essentially a celebration of the paschal mystery. The phrase “Paschal Mystery” is unfamiliar to most Catholics. Only since Vatican II has it become part of the ordinary vocabulary of some more educated Catholics. But “celebration of the paschal mystery” does capture the essence of the Christian Sunday and thus provides a theological basis for meeting the problems which confront it.
In Sacrosanctum concilium the expression “paschal mystery” is somewhat interchangeable with “mysteries of salvation.” The paschal mystery is mentioned frequently as “celebrated,” and traditionally the celebration has been especially on Sunday. On that day the faithful are to “call to mind the passion, the resurrection, and the glorification of the Lord Jesus” (no. 6); it is directly associated with “Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection”
The paschal mystery is the divine plan for man. The purpose of God’s plan is the establishment of his reign, his kingdom, which Jesus preached. The paschal mystery, therefore, embraces far more than the death and resurrection of Jesus. It signifies the plan and realization of the entire saving action of God in history. It reaches backward from Jesus’ Pasch in his resurrection to the pasch of the Exodus, back, indeed, to the formation of the people who were led out of Egypt, and back to the foundation of the world. It reaches forward from the Pasch of Jesus to our own Christian life, which is death with Jesus and rising to new life with him, and still further forward to his parousia, the final judgment, the resurrection of the body, and the new heaven and earth. As a plan in the process of realization by God in cooperation with men, the paschal mystery invites men to action and to celebration.
The writings of the early Fathers of the Church show us the real meaning of the Christian Sunday. It is not a continuation of the Sabbath in the sense of setting aside a day of rest. The Lord’s Day with its Sunday rest came into existence independently of the Jewish Sabbath and the third commandment of the Decalogue given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The basic idea of Sunday is the day of the resurrection – hence a day of joy, triumph, peace and hope.
The very name, the Lord’s Day (dies dominica) shows the connection with the resurrection. Christ becomes the Lord through his resurrection, which in the early Church was the crowning point of the redemption. Sunday is par excellence the day of participation of the resurrection, the salvific paschal mystery.
The centre of this Christ-orientated day was naturally the Eucharistic banquet, which renews the paschal mystery and puts Christians into direct contact with the resurrected Lord. Fasting was forbidden on Sunday because of its joyful character. At Mass, the Christians did not kneel. By standing, they expressed their joy and their preparedness for the final coming of Christ. Their Sunday joy and triumph made them look forward with hope to the full consummation of that joy and peace in heaven.
2. The Sabbath in the Old Testament
The origin of the Jewish Sabbath as a regular day of rest after six days of work is not entirely clear. The writer of the book of Exodus traces the origin of the Sabbath back to God’s own example in the work of creation (cf. Gen: 1:1-2:3) and to an express command of Yahweh. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work” (Ex 20:8-10). The Sabbath, or 7th day of the week, was observed among the Jews as a day sacred to Yahweh. It was to be sanctified by abstinence from work because God had rested on the 7th day after all the work he had done in the creation of the world, and he had blessed and sanctified that day. The Sabbath was a joyful feast day and one on which men visited sanctuaries (Is 1:13; Os 2:13) or went to consult a “man of God” (4 Kgs 4:23). It was a day of special sacrifice and in post-exilic times it was celebrated by attending instruction and prayer gatherings in the synagogues. It was made clear to the early Christians that they were not bound by Jewish practices as such, but only to the extent that these embodied the natural law (Acts 15:28-29). Among the observances regarded as abrogated under this rubric was the keeping of the Sabbath.
The obligation to set some time to the worship of God is natural to man, and it can never be changed or done away with. But the designation of a particular day of worship is a matter of ceremonial prescription, subject to change by lawful authority. The Church has chosen Sunday instead of Saturday as the Lord’s Day because it was on Sunday that Christ rose from the dead.
3. The Lord’s Day in the NT & Apostolic Tradition
In the beginning of the Church the Sunday existed side by side with the Sabbath(Acts 2:42-47). For a long time there was no rest from work on Sunday. The Christian Sunday celebration originates from the conviction that the risen Christ wants to meet his faithful on this day. All the Evangelists attach importance to the fact that Christ rose from the dead and met his disciples “on the first day of the week”. (Mt: 28:1; Mk: 16:2; Lk: 24:1; Jn: 20:1). On the occasion of his appearances the Lord broke bread with his apostles and disciples ate with them (Lk: 24; 30). This recalls the Eucharistic meal, which Christ had instituted on the eve of his passion and which his disciples suppose to perform in his memory. Christians therefore come together on Sundays to break bread. St. Luke reports in one of his accounts that “on the first day of the week, we were gathered together to break bread” Acts 20:7). The text connotes that this was not just an occasional gathering, but a custom become traditional.
The custom of the Sunday celebration is confirmed by such early writers as the author of the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch and Justin the martyr.
Wherever Christian people have taught the Ten Commandments, they have learned that the third commandment says: “remember the Sabbath day, keep it holy”. So it is written in the catechism from time immemorial. In the context of Christian religion Sabbath stands for Sunday. Being part of the Decalogue, the third commandment appeared as one of the commandments directly given by God himself. But theologians are in this regard by no means a common opinion. Many of them hold that the obligation of Sunday sanctification is merely an ecclesiastical law. The O.T. law of Sabbath sanctification has come to an end with Christ, and as to the Sunday observance there is no express commandment given by the Lord. Others hold the view that the obligation to keep one day of the week holy is divine law, while the choice of the particular day is ecclesiastical law. The reason is that God himself followed such a rhythm in the work of creation.
Vatican II does not speak of an express precept of divine law. It attributes to the Sunday precept something more than a merely ecclesiastical authority. The Council apparently wants to say that the celebration of the Sunday is a tradition of particular dignity. The Church cannot alter this law in the same way it can change such purely ecclesiastical legislations as the position of the altar in the church or the days of fat and abstinence.
B. The Obligatory Character of Sunday Worship
The Catholic Church has always insisted on the binding character of the weekly Sunday Mass. The weekly regularity of the common gatherings is of so great importance because only by this means can the spirit of Christ be kept sufficiently alive in the community and become the transforming leaven in the world. Community cannot be formed, lived and remain active without a strong and lasting rhythm. The sacrifice of the Mass has been chosen as the sacramental rite for these assemblies because it is the deepest form of the proclamation of the death and resurrection of the Lord and the most comprehensive liturgical realization of the faith of the new covenant.
The Eucharistic celebration is without doubt the chief characteristic of a Christian’s observance of Sunday. No hard and fast rule existed in the early Church. There is nothing to indicate that the practice of coming together on Sundays for the Eucharistic celebration was regarded as obligatory under pain of sin. Attendance at Sunday Mass was simply taken for granted (Acts 20:7; Didache 14.1). Only in the 6th century was there formulated an explicit law regarding the obligation to assist at Mass on Sunday. It came from the Council of Agde in 506.
According to the present discipline of the Church (canon 1247), the faithful are bound on Sundays and other days of obligation to participate in the Mass and to abstain from those labours and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body.
All Catholic theologians agree that men have an obligation by the natural law to worship God and to do so also in common as a community by public acts. Since such acts presuppose common times, places and rites, there must be a religious authority which is entitled to determine the time and other particulars of the public cult. This right of the religious authority is a demand of the natural law as well, since without it the common cult could not be realized. Hence the precept of Mass attendance is not a legalistic usurpation of an authoritarian Church, which keeps its faithful on a string. It is rather the expression and further specification of an obligation which is inherent in human nature itself and particularly in the believer’s commitment to Christ and to his faith.
It is left to the prudent judgment of the religious authorities to determine the precise time, place and rites of public worship. In this choice they possess freedom within the scope of what is to be achieved. But once the choice has been made and has been declared as the official ruling, it binds the community and its individual members. The obligation to comply with such positive laws of human authorities can be grave or light according to the importance of the matter. Catholics are obliged to participate in an entire Mass on all Sundays and holidays of obligation. The holidays of obligation are at present appointed by the bishops’ conferences for each country individually. Subjects of the obligation are all those who have attained the use of reason and have finished the seventh year.
More than in the past it is emphasized today that the two parts of the Mass inseparably belong together, namely the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. Therefore the Fathers of Vatican II strongly urge the faithful “to take part in the entire Mass”(SC 56).
The faithful must be present bodily so as to celebrate the Mass together with the visible community of believers. The reason is that only in this way common external worship is possible and a common profession of the faith. The full participation in the Lord’s banquet by Holy Communion naturally also demands personal presence.
Attendance at Mass by means of radio or television is only a substitute in cases where bodily presence is physically or morally impossible, e.g., in instances of sickness or old age. Otherwise it is not a sufficient participation in the celebration of the Sunday Mass. The faithful are bound to participate in the Mass with devotion and attention. Worship as an encounter with God is not possible without attention to what one is saying and doing and without internal devotion. A mere external presence with total indifference to the sacred words and rites is no Mass attendance at all.
Those who are impeded from attendance by any moderately serious inconvenience to mind or body are excused from the obligation of attending Mass. The amount of inconvenience or trouble sufficient to excuse an individual from the ecclesiastical obligation cannot be expressed in any exact and universally applicable rule. Those who cannot get to church because they are needed to tend the sick or infant children, those who are obliged to work, those who are too poor to have decent attire or to pay transportation, children, women or employees who would incur serious offence of their parents, husbands or employers, are examples of persons with sufficient reason for not participating in the Mass. Excused from Mass attendance are those who are prevented from participation by reason such as the danger of harm, important services for the weal of the community etc… excused are the sick and people weakened by old age, by duties of emergency help, or urgent works of charity.
If participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible, it is specially recommended that the faithful take part in the liturgy of the word if it is celebrated in the parish church or in another sacred place according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, or engage in prayer for an appropriate amount of time personally or in a family or, as occasion offers, in groups of families (canon 1248, 2).
CHAPTER II: SUNDAY REST
The II Vatican council Council desires Sunday to be a source of joy and relaxation to Christians. “The Lord’s day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and freedom from work” (SC 106). The day of sacred rest for the Jews was the weekly Sabbath. Christians had to adopt themselves to their environment in regard to days of rest. The early Christians in Jewish surroundings rested on the Sabbath, but worshipped on the Sunday. Tertullian (died about 220) is the first to mention the Sunday rest. He considers it as the necessary consequence of an authentic Christian disposition. Emperor Constantine, who granted the Christian freedom of religion and cult and built several splendid churches, decreed in 321 that in place of the Sabbath the Sunday should be the public day of worship and rest in the Roman Empire.
From the seventh century on the Sunday rest is commonly considered as a binding obligation upon Christians. They are supposed to abstain from certain manual works and profane activities on Sundays. But the exact determination of the forbidden works is subject to variation, and the term ‘servile work’ is not universally in use. According to St. Thomas Aquinas the prohibition of work on Sunday is not to be taken in as strict a sense as the Jewish Sabbath observance.
A. The Meaning and Term
For the Second Vatican Council the memorial of the paschal mystery is an important reason why the Sunday ought to be “a day of joy and of freedom from work” (SC 106).
The third commandment in the book of Exodus refers to this. “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God: ……for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them and rested the seventh day”. (Ex 20:10ff).
Of course the free Sunday also aids the common participation at the Sunday service. People cannot dedicate themselves with sufficient freedom to the actual worship of God if they are preoccupied with the demands of daily work and living. Acts of community worship require a common time of rest.
Besides the religious purpose, the Sunday rest also serves other significant purposes of temporal and social nature. The Sunday rest grants people a time of recreation and relaxation, which they need in order to restore their energy and to dedicate themselves to work with a new interest and joy. The common freedom from work permits a more intensive cultivation of family ties and the fostering of community bonds.
Finally the day of rest provides leisure for the cultivation of spiritual and cultural vales, enjoyment of nature and hobbies. People must not be totally absorbed by the productive work of strictly economic output. There are still other values besides money and material gain, which are necessary for a truly human life and without which the human personality cannot fully develop. By feeing people from the daily routine of the working process, the Sunday allows them to dedicate themselves to the activities of the spirit. By this the Sunday provides for times of reflection and meditation and for the cultivation of interior life.
a. Sunday Rest as Bodily Sharing in the Joy of the Resurrection
Through the paschal mystery, men enter into the freedom of the children of God, into the joy of life which is God’s, and into the new creation. On all sides men are seen oppressed and in bondage either to their own uncontrolled instincts and emotions, to forces destructive of physical integrity and life, or to unjust social structures and cultural conditions. Sorrow, depression, boredom, despair, and pain seemingly smother joy in the world of experience. When one rides by train through the slums of large cities, for instance, and sees shabby apartments, grubby little factories, and yards full of junk, one finds it difficult to speak of the freedom and joy in a new creation now.
Yet the Christian in his faith believes that freedom, joy, and the new creation are realities, however imperfectly they may be realized at present or however much they are objects of hope rather than of possession. It is the Christian’s mission to announce this to all Mankind, not merely by speaking about it, but by striving to live it in cooperation with God’s grace. And Sunday rest offers an opportunity to do so by trying to live the joy of the resurrection.
In light of these thoughts, rest from work on Sunday must be interpreted as abstention from whatever curtails freedom, suppresses joy, and prevents enjoyment of the goods of this world. It is abstention, or better, an escape from the slavery of an existence made difficult and miserable by sin in a world made ugly by sin. It means escape from those ordinary activities to which men are bound by the sheer necessities of human existence infected by sin.
Abstention from work on Sunday means men’s wresting themselves free from the dominion of sin and refusing to become involved in those activities (in kind and quality) which must ordinarily be engaged in to keep the sin-infected human existence going in all spheres: bodily, mental, spiritual. Men wrest themselves free from slavery to sinful human existence by celebrating their freedom and joy as sons and daughters of God in the new creation in the Risen Christ. They celebrate their freedom by doing what they wish to do rather than what they must do. They celebrate their joy by the appreciative and creative enjoyment of the world. In a word, they celebrate the paschal mystery by play in the new creation.
b. Sunday Rest as Aid to Formal Worship of God
The early Christians ceased from work on Sunday mainly for participating in corporate worship. Even when civil legislation under Constantine and subsequent emperors made Sunday a holiday, the Fathers of the Church stressed, not abstention from work, but worship and upright conduct becoming to Christians.
For the great theologians of the scholastic period also the Sunday rest exists primarily for worship. Sunday is a day of worship of God by the whole Christian community. Since the Mass is the most perfect form of worship, the primary function of Sunday rest is to allow time for participating in the Mass and for carrying out the spirit of worship throughout the day. Whatever disturbs such communal worship violates Sunday rest. For the Fathers, in a spiritual and primary sense, servile work is sin. They interpret the Old Testament prohibition of feast-day servile work as a prohibition of sinful actions. Sin is the servile work par excellence. Sin enslaves Man and takes away from him his freedom. The Fathers urge the Christian to avoid such slavery on all days but especially on Sunday. For the same Fathers, in a material sense, servile work is whatever prevents Man from freely worshipping God on Sunday. Thus theologically speaking, Sunday rest is to be conceived as a sharing in the joy of the resurrection which tends towards formal Sunday worship.
B. Moral Theological Considerations
Cesarius of Arles (A.D. 542) observed that if the Jews abstained from all work on the Sabbath, all the more Christians should abstain from work on the Lord’s Day.
Sunday must not be regarded simply as a day free from work, but as a day for the exercise of freedom, the expression of joy, and worshipful enjoyment of the world. The time available on Sunday must be seized and filled with worship of God and suitable activities. If so, then Sunday activities should have the characteristics of play: freedom, joy, recreation and creativity. These four characteristics taken together provide a handy norm for determining which activities are suitable for Christians on Sundays. They are more positive than the negative norm of “no work” or the outmoded rule of “no servile work.”
Whether or not a work is free depends greatly upon the individual and his circumstances. A career-woman may find hours in the kitchen on Sunday a free activity. The individual is the ultimate judge in the light of the objective norm. The preachers’ and moralists’ task is not to name the activities which are free, but to describe the freedom which the Christian should seek in the activities which he chooses for Sunday.
A second criterion for Sunday activities is the joy which they afford. The conviction of Christian faith has always been that God created man for happiness, that he raised Christ from the dead in fulfillment of that promise and as a pledge that all men shall some day experience its fulfillment if they submit to God’s creative action and do not reject it. Lack of joy is un-Christian. This does not mean that Christians admit no sorrow or sadness into their lives, or that they should continually wear false smiles and go about. It means that joy is an integral part of Christian life; it ought to dominate life in the long run even during earthly existence, although only beyond this existence will it be untroubled by any sorrow.
The third criterion for Sunday activities is their recreative quality. Men do not have to be Christians in order to see the need for at least one day a week free from ordinary pursuits, so that human energies – physical, emotional, and mental – may be replenished. For this recreation is necessary.
The fourth criterion for Sunday activities is creativity. God created man in his image and gave him a share in his dominion over creation. Genesis portrays man as placed by God in a garden to cultivate and care for it. Man is to continue God’s creation out-of-nothing by fashioning new things out of the goods God has given him. Sunday activities should be celebration of the new creation; Christians must appropriately exercise their creativity on Sunday.
In this perspective the older negative norm of “no work” or “no servile work.” is outmoded. Earlier theologians used to distinguish between servile work and non-servile work simply on the basis of the nature of the work alone and prohibited servile work on Sunday. A work was classified as servile simply because it was a mechanical, arduous, physical sort of work, a sort of work that would be left to slaves or servants if that were possible. Examples of servile work would be sowing, ploughing, cutting wood, making clothes, etc. Servile work was understood in distinction to liberal work, or work that employs the mental powers chiefly, and to “mixed” or common work that requires both physical and mental effort but with the mental predominating. Servile work, so understood, was regarded as forbidden on Sunday, while liberal and mixed work was not.
C. Obligatory Character
Ecclesiastical law obliges one to abstain, on Sundays and holidays of obligation, “from those works and occupation which obstruct the worship to be rendered to God, the joy befitting the Lord’s Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body” (CIC 1247). Generally those unbefitting works have been understood as manual work of a heavier nature. A decisive criterion for the determination of forbidden works remains the factor of whether a certain work disturbs the divine worship, festive mood and public sacred repose.
Urgent need always excuses from the precept. Poor people who cannot support themselves and their family unless they work on Sunday are excused from the law, as are the employees who are constrained to work in order not to loose their job. Services which are necessary for the public welfare and the common good are equally warranted, such as public transportation, the work in petrol stations, hotels, hospitals, etc…
The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship as a sign of his universal beneficence to all. Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people. The Catechism teaches that on Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.
The present threat to the sanctification of Sunday poses the pastoral problem of how to reshape Sunday creatively, holding fast to tradition as properly understood, without clinging to outdated, changeable elements, but bringing out the essentials as clearly as possible. For this we must first abandon some false pastoral attitudes which are more harmful than the threats from without. The sanctification of Sunday has been presented far too one-sidedly as a duty, while it would be far more convincing to base it on the values discussed above.
There are many Pharisees in our own day who likewise think that the Sabbath is to be kept with an external rigor and outward observance alone, and not keeping the internal spirit of it. Through the observance of Sunday, the people must be united together and they should feel the real experience of the Risen Christ. The celebration should help people to share their joys and experiences and thus it becomes a day of total nourishment and spiritual refreshment.